Content warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of violence.
In the spring of 1978, police in Decatur, Alabama, arrested 26-year-old Tommy Lee Hines and charged him with raping two white women and robbing one. Before he could be brought to trial, he was charged with the rape of a third white woman.
It didn’t matter that Hines was at least four inches shorter than a description of the perpetrator, had the mental capacity of a 6-year-old and could neither read nor write the confession that he allegedly signed. He was set to go to trial that October in Cullman, some 40 miles south of Decatur.
When the trial date approached, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference staged a march from Decatur to Cullman to protest his arrest. Alabama state troopers and members of the Ku Klux Klan met the protesters at the Cullman city limits, where some people were arrested for marching without a permit.
The next year, following Hines’ conviction, marchers in Decatur were attacked by about 100 Klansmen wielding clubs, baseball bats and ax handles, leaving two Klansmen and a Black woman marcher shot in the head and face, and several others injured. That incident led to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s first civil rights lawsuit against the Klan.
Almost a half-century later, descendants of those who marched for Hines are now organizing their own marches, demonstrations and rallies to protest the police shooting death of Stephen Clay Perkins in Decatur. And, like their predecessors, they are being arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights.
“Over the course of the times we’ve had rallies and demonstrations to protest there’s been nine arrests,” said Aneesah Saafiyah, one of the organizers with the racial justice group Standing In Power (SIP). Her father, Danny Saafiyah Sr., had been one of the lead organizers during the Hines protests and march. “Our protests haven’t been violent. None have been. No one has been attacking the police or anything like that. It’s just the intimidation tactics that the police use.”
Perkins, 39, was shot to death in the early hours of Sept. 29 in front of his home. Initially, police said Perkins refused orders from officers to put down a weapon when a tow truck operator tried to repossess Perkins’ pickup truck. But security camera footage from neighboring homes tells a different story.
In the video footage, after Perkins walks out of his house and yells for the tow operator to put his truck down, two police officers are seen running from the side of Perkins’ house. “Police! Get on the ground!” an officer yells immediately before opening fire.
At least 18 shots can be heard in the video. Perkins was hit seven times. He was declared dead at a local hospital. Since that fateful 11-second encounter, his family, friends and community have sought answers.
“Communities want to believe that police officers are here to serve and protect everyone,” said Tafeni English-Relf, the SPLC’s Alabama state director. “They also want to trust law enforcement’s policies and procedures, not be undermined by them. The lack of humanity displayed towards Steve Perkins in front of his home has severely eroded that trust.”
The SPLC’s Alabama state office has been working alongside the members of SIP and community leaders to demand justice for Perkins. The SIP has called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate.
The spin from law enforcement began immediately after the shooting. Both the Decatur Police Department and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) released statements claiming that Perkins had a gun when he confronted the tow truck operator, then turned toward police and “brandished” it, forcing them to shoot.
The original Decatur Police press release went further. It described a scene in which police were called to Perkins’ home and met the tow truck driver after the driver attempted to repossess a vehicle. According to the press release, Perkins approached the driver and threatened him with the gun. When police told him to drop the weapon, according to the release, Perkins turned the gun toward one of the officers, and the officer fired, striking Perkins.
The Perkins family issued a press release on Sept. 29. In it, the family called on police to release to them the bodycam footage of the events that early Friday morning. The release also pushed back on the police press release version of events, pointing out that there was security camera footage from homes in the neighborhood that told a very different story.
The family said in its statement that there was no basis for a repossession of Perkins’ truck and that they had the receipts to prove it.
Other neighbors stood up for Perkins as well. Justin Shepherd, a U.S. Army veteran with disabilities who lives across the street, was one of the first people on the scene after the shooting.
Shepherd said he called William Stewart, a close friend of Stephen Perkins, and told him that Perkins had been killed.
“At first Will thought I was confused,” Shepherd said. “Catrela [Perkins, Stephen’s wife] was working the night shift, so I called Will. He asked what was going on and I told him, ‘Steve’s been shot. Police are walking in and out of his house right now.’”
In their statement, the Perkins family said that no one from the city, the police or ALEA reached out to them after Perkins’ death.
“It saddens us the City of Decatur failed to offer condolences, pay respect or notify Catrela Perkins or the family upon the Decatur Police Department’s use of excessive force and murder of [Stephen] Clay Perkins,” the statement read.
A statement from Decatur Police Chief Todd Pinion on Oct. 2, more than 72 hours after the shooting, was more conciliatory but did not correct any of the language from the department’s original release.
Pinion did eventually issue a second statement almost two weeks after the initial press release, correcting that the officer told Perkins to get on the ground, not drop his gun. But he did not change the overall tone that cast Perkins as an aggressor rather than the victim of what one Alabama columnist suggested looked like an ambush.
“I apologize for the inaccurate description of the encounter in our initial statement, and we have already taken steps to improve our public information sharing process,” Pinion said in the statement.
Raising community voices
As strained as the police-community relationship was in the days following the shooting, it got worse in the weeks that followed.
After the first vigil, community activists began a full press of protests, demonstrations and events to show their support for the Perkins family and to pressure officials to release updates on the investigation.
It was during a march after one event that the first arrests occurred.
“Yeah, so we protested down here and we went up through Highway 20,” said Terrance Adkins, an organizer with SIP. “And right when we got on like a tight area, that’s when they came and attacked. It was like 30 officers, some with shotguns.”
Adkins, whose grandfather James Guster was a community leader during the Tommy Lee Hines marches in 1978, said he saw no reason for the police intervention. Nine people were arrested, mostly on misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct. Those arrests continued; about a dozen people have been charged so far. Several of the arrests came after protesters blocked the roadway, allowing police to claim they were blocking a public thoroughfare.
Despite early assurances that the bodycam footage would be released in mid-October, that did not happen. As of today, the family has still not seen it.
People in Decatur also took issue with the city’s refusal to comment on the case. Although the City Council made time during its meetings for a public comment period in which citizens could have three minutes each to make statements, Mayor Tab Bowling was conspicuously absent at the council’s meetings on Oct. 30 and Nov. 6.
When the mayor did finally reappear at the Nov. 13 meeting, he said he had been out of town during the two-week period. He also said he was withholding comment because he might have to weigh in on any personnel hearings for the officers involved.
“If I were to go out and start making comments publicly, it would position me to where I would not be able to participate in this process,” Bowling said.
He also has announced he would not seek another term as mayor, although he said he had made that decision prior to Perkins’ death.
Staying the distance
Meanwhile, the marches and gatherings continue. On Nov. 9, a peaceful “unity barbecue” was held at Ingalls Harbor Pavilion, a city-owned multipurpose facility. The event went on without issue after the organizer, Craig Johnson, explained his request for a permit and security to the City Council.
“Now you say 10 units, that’s a lot of units,” Johnson said in requesting the police support for a march. “If I were to stand right here and tell you or the chief or anybody, ‘This is going to happen whether you like it or not,’ you would have 10 units waiting for us to march.”
Justin Shepherd had approached the city as well, seeking help in having the damage to his home repaired. In the light of day, he was able to take a better look at the damage that came from the killing across the street. His house was struck at least 16 times. One round pierced a wall and destroyed electrical wiring that powered half of his house.
He also said that on Oct. 12 he had seen a drone hovering over his house, coming close enough that he could have swatted it with a stick as it inspected the area. He approached two ALEA officers flying the drone from their vehicles in the parking lot of the police training facility about a quarter-mile away. When he started to take video of the duo, he said one of the officers turned their vehicle around so he could not read the license plate. They then packed up their gear and left.
The Decatur police have said that the internal investigation into Perkins’ death has been completed, but the results have not been released. An investigation by state police is still underway, and some neighbors say they received requests for their home security video in late October.
But Adrianna Tapscott, another SIP community organizer, said the confrontation between Perkins, the tow operator and police should not have happened at all.
“Basically, 2 a.m. is a bad time to be in Decatur picking up a truck,” Tapscott said. “Whether it was a civil matter or not, the repo company shouldn’t have been there. When the driver called the police, the police should have told him to deal with it tomorrow. They should have never engaged. They shouldn’t have even been there.”
In the community, there are lots of questions left unanswered about policy and procedures within the Decatur Police Department. A family who spoke to the council on Nov. 6 said that, according to information from an accident report, they believed one of the officers involved in the Perkins shooting also took part in a high-speed chase that resulted in the death of 16-year-old Jaiden DeJarnett on Sept. 4.
“Were these officers investigated?” asked Larry DeJarnett Sr., Jaiden’s grandfather. “Was this incident investigated? When were these officers allowed to return to duty? These are questions that we want to know. We want answers to these questions, and we’ll be petitioning the City Council to give us some response to these questions.”
According to DeJarnett, a state trooper at the scene of Jaiden’s crash said the officers were chasing his grandson because his lights were not on.
For now, the outrage is coupled with a deep sense of insecurity among many. The lack of transparency regarding the release of bodycam video, along with the information gaffes on the part of law enforcement, only add to the feeling that justice will not be served without vigilance from the Black community.
“Our collective goal is to ensure Decatur residents feel safe in their own neighborhoods by calling attention to a pointless killing that raises more questions than it does answers,” the SPLC’s English-Relf said. “Law enforcement and local leaders can only begin to restore that trust with transparency, accountability and authentic engagement. Anything less is unacceptable to Decatur residents, who need and deserve to feel secure and heard in their own community – now more than ever.”
Image at top: Stephen Clay Perkins, 39, was killed by police in Decatur, Alabama, outside his home on Sept. 29, 2023. (Courtesy of Standing In Power)